Thousands join Iraq’s first weekly prayers since Covid-19

Thousands join Iraq’s first weekly prayers since Covid-19
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr maintain social distancing as they attend Friday prayers for the first time in months. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 11 September 2020

Thousands join Iraq’s first weekly prayers since Covid-19

Thousands join Iraq’s first weekly prayers since Covid-19
  • Iraq’s mosques have been closed to gatherings for close to six months
  • The coronavirus pandemic has hit Iraq hard, with nearly 280,000 confirmed cases

BAGHDAD: Thousands of supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr gathered at a mosque in east Baghdad on Friday for the first weekly prayers since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Iraq’s mosques have been closed to gatherings for close to six months, but notoriously outspoken Sadr said on Wednesday that he would hold open-air prayers in his stronghold.
In east Baghdad’s Sadr City on Friday, worshippers put on medical masks and gloves and had their temperatures taken before being allowed into the courtyard of the main mosque, where volunteers were spraying disinfectant.
“We urge everyone to abide by social distancing and protect themselves against this virus,” the imam said in the opening to his brief sermon.
Sadr had issued a list of restrictions on Twitter this week, including that worshippers must stand exactly 75 centimeters apart and sermons must last only 15 minutes.
One worshipper, Qassem Al-Mayahi, 40, said he was “happy to finally be able to pray on Fridays, as this is one of the five pillars of Islam.”
“We need to figure out how to live” with the virus, he told AFP. “We may as well pray.”
Other prayers at Sadrist mosques were expected in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Friday.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit Iraq hard, with nearly 280,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,800 deaths.
In March, Iraqi authorities shut down airports and imposed total lockdowns to halt the virus’s spread. Top Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani halted his weekly sermons, and they have yet to resume.
But rules have generally been relaxed, with most airports reopening in July and curfews now only in place overnight.
On Monday, the Iraqi government’s coronavirus crisis cell announced restaurants could seat customers — rather than just providing takeaway services — if they abide by health ministry protocols and that sports events could resume, but in the absence of spectators.
The loosening of restrictions came just a few days after Iraq recorded its highest daily caseload yet, with more than 5,000 new Covid-19 infections recorded on September 4.
The health ministry attributed the spike to recent “large gatherings” that took place without recommended safety measures, including mask wearing and social distancing.
That included the marking on August 30 of Ashura, a Shiite day of mourning that commemorates the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in Karbala in 680 AD.
Usually, millions of pilgrims from around the world travel to Karbala to mark Ashura, but this year Iraq did not grant visas to religious tourists and kept borders with neighboring Shiite-majority Iran closed.
But concern is already building over Arbaeen, which comes 40 days after Ashura — on October 8 — and typically sees even larger numbers converge at Karbala.
Iraq’s interior ministry told AFP any foreign national without Iraqi residency would not be granted entry until after Arbaeen.
Hospitals in Iraq have already been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines, hospital beds and even protective equipment for doctors.


Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  
Updated 3 min 6 sec ago

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  

Will Turkey succeed with its new charm offensive?  
  • Erdogan said that he expects to “turn a new page” in ties with Europe and “set a positive agenda” in 2021
  • Turkey also initiated the 61st round of exploratory talks with Greece on Jan. 25 to resolve longstanding conflicts

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is downplaying Ankara’s tensions with a host of countries as he launches a charm offensive on a variety of fronts. 
Meeting with the ambassadors of EU member states in Ankara on Jan. 12, Erdogan said that he expects to “turn a new page” in ties with Europe and “set a positive agenda” in 2021. 
However, his comments came at the same time as Brussels draws up an expanded sanctions list targeting Turkish individuals over Ankara’s decision to drill for offshore natural gas near Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. The punitive measures are set to be announced in March. 
Turkey also initiated the 61st round of exploratory talks with Greece on Jan. 25 to resolve longstanding conflicts over energy rights and maritime boundaries that pushed both countries to the brink of war last year. 
Similarly, Turkish and French presidents, after trading barbs last year, especially over their divergent regional policies, recently exchanged letters in which they agreed to resume talks to improve ties. The two countries are working on a roadmap to normalize relations. 
Despite growing tensions last year over the drilling activities of the Oruc Reis research ship in contested waters off Greece, Erdogan also called for cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean rather than competition. 
Experts remain skeptical about the success of this diplomatic sea-change and the hidden motivations behind it. Whether these steps will lead to tangible gestures in the region and globally is still a matter of concern. 
Ian Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, believes Ankara is trying to modulate its foreign policy messaging, above all with the US and the EU. 
“Part of this is tactical, including the desire to forestall or limit future sanctions, and to offset the influence of more hawkish voices within the EU,” he told Arab News. 
According to Lesser, Ankara would prefer an agenda that is more German and less French in the coming months, and this will also be read closely by the new administration in Washington.  
“With the important exception of the eastern Mediterranean, the Trump administration was not overly concerned about Turkish-EU relations or the range of issues affecting these relations. The incoming Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to migration, human rights and media freedom, all issues on the EU agenda with Ankara,” he said. 
But according to Marc Pierini, a visiting academic at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and a former EU envoy to Turkey, “we have seen this movie before.” 
“When Turkey finds itself stuck with failed policy choices, it performs abrupt U-turns, this time on monetary policy, and relations with the US and the EU,” he told Arab News. 
In the meantime, Ankara hopes to rebuild its relations with Washington under Joe Biden, and failed to react harshly to the appointment of Brett McGurk, a staunch Turkey critic, as the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. 
Pierini believes that such Turkish U-turns have zero credibility.  
“You can’t say that Turkey’s future is in Europe — only weeks after saying Germany was ‘Nazi’ and France needed to get rid of its mentally impaired president,” he said, referring to the feud between Erdogan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron last year when the Turkish leader advised Macron to have a mental health checkup over his comments on Islam. 
“While dismantling the rule of law week after week, Turkey’s leadership wants European leaders to believe that major governance reforms are around the corner and that its accession ambitions are alive,” Pierini said. 
“The same goes with NATO, at a time when Turkey has deliberately facilitated Russia’s strategic objectives against the Atlantic alliance,” he added. 
Ankara’s stubborn stance over the S-400 Russian air defense system remains a strong deterrent for any normalization with the US administration as the system is considered incompatible with the NATO version and could be used by Moscow to obtain classified details on the US F-35 jets. 
However, experts are divided about whether these efforts will prove successful.
Lesser believes that rhetoric does make a difference, and that the Turkey debate has become so critical on both sides of the Atlantic that leaders and observers are looking for concrete change on the S-400 issue and other fronts. 
“This will not be easy. There is probably a time-limited window for Ankara to demonstrate that there is substance behind these multiple signals of detente,” he said. 
For Pierini, to find a way out of these massive contradictions, EU leaders will have to strike a balance between their own credulity and the artificial narratives emanating from Ankara. 
“Before doing so, they will talk to the Biden administration,” he said. 
At the end of 2020, Erdogan also expressed a desire to mend ties with Israel amid speculation that both countries would reappoint ambassadors. 
Gallia Lindenstrauss, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said that the drivers behind Turkey’s overtures to Israel include: Preparations for the incoming US administration; tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, and the desire to drive a wedge between Israel, Cyprus and Greece; the Abraham accords and the end of the blockade on Qatar which requires Turkey to rethink its policies toward the Middle East; and the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that reminded Ankara of the advantages of cooperating with Israel.
Although the return of diplomatic ties is a feasible aim, she doesn’t expect any change before the Israeli elections in March and the formation of a new government. 
“However, this will not fundamentally improve relations as there is deep suspicion between the two states,” Lindenstrauss told Arab News.
“Also Israel will likely make additional demands from Turkey to show that its overtures are sincere, such as Ankara halting Hamas military activity organized on its soil and directed against Israel and the West Bank, as well as more transparency about Turkey’s projects in East Jerusalem,” she added.